Sugarmakers tap in early

ADDISON COUNTY — In his 34 years of maple sugaring, Starksboro’s Dave Folino has encountered few winters like this one. With some local spotters noting temperatures soaring eight degrees above average last month and more than six degrees above average in December, the sap has been flowing steadily.
“It’s not really a winter,” said Folino. “It’s pretty much a perpetual sugar season.”
The line of snowshoes at the Folinos’ home this year isn’t sitting atop its usual bank of snow; it looks more like a museum display than a row of tools for navigating the family’s 14,000-plus maple taps. But despite the unseasonably warm weather, Folino and many other sugarmakers have yet to start producing syrup this year.
Why not?
Folino offered three chief reasons:
•  The sap’s sugar content is much lower in January and February than it is in March.
•  Equipment could be damaged if heavy winter weather rolls in.
•  And the integrity of the tap and tap hole is only good for a limited time.
It’s well documented that the sugar content of maple sap changes from winter to spring, according to Tim Wilmot, the University of Vermont Extension’s maple specialist. But no one seems to know what causes this phenomenon.
“We know that it increases in the spring,” he said. “But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen spelled out why the sugar content increases between January and March. I don’t think it’s really clear why it changes and what regulates that.”
Although sap’s been running, Folino, who runs Hillsboro Sugarworks, said the combination of low sugar content and the winter’s potential weather risks aren’t worth the investment of early-season sugarmaking.
According to the National Weather Service, Cornwall and South Lincoln experienced their second- and third-warmest Decembers, respectively. In January, towns witnessed colder weather, but temperatures were still way above average, with Salisbury and South Lincoln both experiencing their fourth-warmest Januaries on record. And the unseasonably warm weather has continued into February.
While the warm temperatures are abundantly strange to many local residents, sugarmakers like Moe Rheaume, president of Addison County Maple Sugarmakers Association, are less worried about the near-record high temps than they are about the lack of precipitation.
“My concern and a lot of others is the lack of moisture,” said Rheaume, who lives in Middlebury and runs Rheaume and Sons maple operation. “Down here it’s pretty dry. And the fact that sap is mostly water and there’s not a lot of water, it could affect the sap flow quite a bit.”
December precipitation was down more than half an inch in Salisbury and South Lincoln, and January precipitation across Cornwall, Salisbury and South Lincoln also teetered around half an inch below average. So far, February’s been even worse for precipitation. While South Lincoln and Salisbury received only 0.08 inches in the first two weeks of the month, Cornwall received even less.
“We could be inhibited by drought conditions later because sugaring is so moisture dependent,” said Folino. “And when you have snow on the ground you have locked up moisture just sitting there.”
Right now, Addison County doesn’t have much snow. January snowfall across the county was down by about a foot, and February is looking even worse.
“I think we could be facing a situation where in the middle or later in the (sugaring) season there’s not enough moisture to keep going,” said Folino. “But who knows.”
By the end of the day on Tuesday, Folino said he should have two-thirds of his 14,000 maple trees tapped. Rheaume also indicated that many local sugarmakers should be producing syrup by the end of this week. That’s about a week earlier than usual.
“It’s kind of a gamble,” said Folino about the sugar season. “It’s just hard to figure out the timing.”
What the sugarmakers are looking for is a fabled freeze-thaw cycle that allows the sap to run, but maintains the integrity of the taps, keeps undesirable bacteria at bay and prevents the trees from budding — which signals the end of the sugar season. Combine this process with enough ground moisture to push the sap through until April, and sugarmakers will rejoice in a sweet season.
“As far as what happens in the season, so much of it has to do with the weather during the season, not before the season,” said Wilmott. “I know a lot of people are wondering if (the lack of) snow will make a difference … Moisture in the ground makes a big difference. If we don’t get some good precipitation of some form between now and April it could be a less than banner year.”
While memories of last year’s record maple syrup season are sweet, Folino shares Willmot’s cautious outlook.
“It’s really hard to predict just looking at the conditions we have now where we might end up in April,” he said. “Things could switch up a lot between now and then. But if things continue, I’d say it’d have to be an early starting season and an early ending season.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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